San Diego-based self-help speaker in court for AZ sweat lodge deaths - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

San Diego-based self-help speaker in court for AZ sweat lodge deaths

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This undated photo provided by the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office shows James Arthur Ray. This undated photo provided by the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office shows James Arthur Ray.
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CAMP VERDE, Ariz. (AP) — Motivational speaker James Arthur Ray has pleaded not guilty to three counts of manslaughter at his first court appearance since being charged with causing three deaths at an Arizona sweat lodge ceremony he led last year.

Ray was indicted and arrested on Wednesday for the deaths at an Oct. 8 ceremony intended to be the highlight of his five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event. The ceremony was held at a retreat center he rented near Sedona.

In court on Thursday, Ray's lawyer entered the plea on his behalf.

Ray is being held in the Yavapai County, Ariz., jail on $5 million bond and faces a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 12½ years on each count.

Ray's attorneys call the charges unjust and say they're confident he will be exonerated. If convicted, he faces a minimum of 3 years and a maximum of 12½ years on each count.

"This was a terrible accident, but it was an accident, not a criminal act," Ray attorney Luis Li said. "James Ray cooperated at every step of the way, providing information and witnesses to the authorities showing that no one could have foreseen this accident."

Ray has built a multimillion-dollar empire as a self-help superstar who teaches people about financial and spiritual wealth, and uses free seminars to recruit followers to more expensive events. He soared in popularity after appearing in the 2006 Rhonda Byrne documentary "The Secret," and he later was a guest on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and "Larry King Live" to promote it.

The Oct. 8 sweat lodge ceremony was intended to be the highlight of Ray's five-day "Spiritual Warrior" event at a retreat he rented near Sedona. He told participants, who paid more than $9,000 each to attend, that it would be one of the most intense experiences of their lives.

About halfway through the two-hour ceremony, some began feeling ill, vomiting and collapsing inside the 415-square-foot structure. Despite that, Ray urged participants to push past their physical weaknesses and chided those who wanted to leave, authorities and participants have said.

Two people — Kirby Brown, 38, of Westtown, N.Y., and James Shore, 40, of Milwaukee — passed out inside the sweat lodge and died that night at a hospital. Liz Neuman, 49, of Prior Lake, Minn., slipped into a coma and died a week later. Eighteen others were hospitalized.

Neuman's daughter, Andrea Puckett, said Wednesday she was pleased with Ray's arrest and praised the authorities for the depth of their investigation.

"It helps that he is, for now, being stopped from doing what he's doing, from harming anyone else, and that's the biggest relief for me and my family right now," said Puckett, of Bloomington, Minn.

Ray's attorneys have said he took all necessary safety precautions and wasn't aware of any medical problems until the ceremony was over.

Brown's mother, Ginny, said Wednesday from her home in Westtown that she would have liked to believe the deaths were accidental but that everything that Ray did during the "Spiritual Warrior" event almost made them inevitable.

"One of the things that horrifies me after we found out Kirby had died was to see how he behaved, to really yield his true character," she said. "This wasn't just a horrible accident. His own conviction in his omnipotence and his own seduction of money and wealth made him delusional."

Authorities said they quickly determined the deaths were not accidental and focused their investigation on Ray. They conducted hundreds of interviews that reached into Ray's past ceremonies and events, including one in which a man fell unconscious during a 2005 sweat lodge ceremony at the same retreat near Sedona.

"The detectives, they put a lot of work into this," said Yavapai County sheriff's spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn. "The families really wanted to see what they believe will be justice..."

Ray's representatives have said there was no way Ray could have predicted the night's tragic events. Had he heard any pleas for help inside the pitch-black sweat lodge, he would have stopped the ceremony immediately, Ray's attorneys said.

Documents released in the investigation showed that some people lost consciousness and others suffered broken bones at past Ray-led events and that Ray largely ignored medical problems that arose.

One participant in the latest sweat lodge questioned the worth of having Ray behind bars and said he could do more good by speaking publicly about how to handle adversity and contributing financially to the families of the deceased — something the families have said hasn't been done so far.

"He can't change what happened, but he can respond to what happened in a concrete, tangible way," said Kristina Bivins of San Francisco. "His desire is to help the families, to help the Native American community, to make sure that nothing like this ever happens again."

Another participant, Beverley Bunn, said she has no ill feelings toward Ray but is satisfied in knowing he cannot continue his work.

"I just feel justice will prevail, and the truth will come out," said Bunn, who was Brown's roommate during at the "Spiritual Warrior" event.

In the weeks after the deaths, lawsuits accused Ray and the owners of the Angel Valley Retreat Center where the sweat lodge was held of negligence and fraud. Ray's publisher postponed two book releases, and Ray canceled his appearances amid heavy criticism from survivors.

The owners of Angel Valley have said their contact with Ray was minimal over the years he held the sweat lodge there, and that other groups had used the same lodge for ceremonies without any problems.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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